Mockingbird

A mockingbird might be seen doing “wing flashes” as it hunts insects on the lawn by day, but you might hear its collection of copied bird songs all night.

If you have occasion to sleep with a window open this time of year, your slumber might be deterred by the greatest songbird hits of all time.

It might seem like one of those recorded music collections hyped on television during a 30-minute commercial. You hear several seconds of one oldie, then another, then another, ad nauseum. Only this definitive collection that you are being forced to sample does not end in 30 minutes.

This delightful collection of avian melodies, whether you want to hear them or not, is apt to play all night thanks to your neighborhood mockingbird.

Most people know the mockingbird on sight. This songbird (in the truest sense) is a slim, long-tailed species that is common in lawns, commercial lots and parks with plenty of open, grassy areas with a selection of shrubs and trees for nesting sites.

The mockingbird is usually 9-10 inches long with a wingspan of about 13 inches. The bird’s back and folded wings are overall grayish — a mixture of black, shades of gray and white. The head is light gray, and the undersides are white.

These birds are common around human residences, and they are not particularly people shy. Where they are accustomed to people coming and going, they often carry on with their business with humans fairly close at hand.

Mockingbirds are primarily insect eaters, supplementing their buggy diet with fruits. They are often seen hopping around on mowed lawns, occasionally executing a “wing flash,” spreading wings half-way or more to expose white markings on the underside while also twitching the tail.

Ornithologists still cannot swear what the wing flash is all about, but it is speculated that the move is to startle and flush unseen insects that the mockingbird can then grab and gobble.

What you might notice more than this ground-level activity is the mockingbird’s music. All mockers have vocal abilities, but the males are extraordinary. What they do to earn their species name is to copycat the songs of other birds. They hear other birds singing, learn to sing those same tunes of the other species and add them to a running repertoire.

It is said that some male mockingbirds can master and perform up to 200 songs of other birds during a lifetime of mimicry.

Single guy mockingbirds, typically males that haven’t yet taken up with a mate — or those that might have lost a previous mate — do the most singing. It can be by day or it can be nocturnal. I don’t know when these mockers sleep because they are famous for singing virtually all night long.

One gathers that the nocturnal concerts are about territoriality interwoven with advertising for a mate. A night-vocalizing mockingbird wants a lady bird with which to consort and nest, and he would like other males to respect his place where he would like to do that.

This nocturnal performance probably is missed by most humans in these days of central cooling and heating. For those who buck the trend and crack open the windows during pleasantly cool nights, however, the mockingbird’s social media can be beautiful but annoying.

The calling mockingbird will sing a few notes of one species’ call — maybe a verse and a chorus — then move right along with the perfectly matched vocalization of another species that it has heard.

Sometimes a human that would rather sleep than hear the whole show is tempted to shout criticism into the night. I have been known to arise, go outside and request that the lonesome male bird either stop or take his gig elsewhere. That has never had long-lasting results.

I have lain quietly and counted, not sheep, but more than 100 different songs consecutively shared in a mockingbird’s nocturnal concert. I have found that the better alternative is to close the windows down and kick back on the AC no matter how cool the night might be.

After dealing with this, a happy homeowner may find that mockingbirds nesting in a shrub or tree in the yard are intolerant the other way around. Mockers are aggressive defenders of their nesting habitat against intruding birds of other species, cats and dogs, or even the people who foolishly imagine that they own the tree in which the mockingbirds are nesting.

If you recklessly walk through the lawn near the active nest of a mockingbird, it very well may swoop you in threatening fashion to remind you that you are not welcome there. Mockingbirds will buzz and “get” an intruder if initial feints don’t set things right.

Many household pets and household humans have been routed from a mockingbird nesting area with air strikes that ruffle a little fur or perhaps tease the hair of uncapped heads.

I have never heard of a mockingbird actually slaying an intruding human. Considering that a small human being is about 800 times larger than the biggest mockingbird, I doubt that is possible. But lots and lots of people have been sent into panicked retreat by those fluttering wings up there at wig level.

You’d think if we could put up with their vocal performances that mockingbirds could treat us more cordially. But maybe it is because we don’t tip.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.